Year for the Planet Week 12: A Study of Herbs & Spices (and how to make things taste great)

Before you can fix the world, you have to fix yourself. Year for a Planet is a personal challenge to be a better human for the planet for a whole year. This year, 2017, is where I deal with my food choices.


At home, my family has been incredulous that I have kept up this lifestyle change for this long. Twelve weeks and counting, baby! Maybe sustainability is the secret sauce to health.

This early in the project, I have realized one crucial thing: to make my new lifestyle stick, I need to make the food taste great. And my favorite part so far has been learning all about herbs and spices. Herbs come from the green leafy part of the plant, while spices come from the non-leafy part, such as the root, stem, seed, fruit, etc.

Spices have been used for centuries and many historians believe that the spice trade shaped civilization. From embalming in ancient Egypt to food preservation in Europe to medicine in Asia, spices have had many uses. The 15th-17th centuries were marked by the “spice wars” between the Dutch and the Portuguese, and created many careers out of a profitable, and sometimes unscrupulous enterprise. It’s strange to see them now on most grocery stores across the canned tomatoes and cooking oils.

First, the downside: all the spices I have used so far are the dried ones that are packaged in glass jars with plastic tops. I’ll have to make significant changes to my living situation first before I can grow them myself. Nothing beats having them fresh, but right now, beggars can’t be choosers. Or rather, a megacity-dweller cannot be picky. Maybe later.

Now the upside: unlike in the time of Vasco de Gama and Ferdinand Magellan, they’re super cheap. And a little bit goes a long way. A significant part of my artistic practice has a lot to do with olfaction, and so the first thing I did was to distinguish these by smell. I like to inhale their aromas before adding them to my dishes.

Here are the spices that usually make it into my food. I only use a teaspoon of each a day, usually to my tofu and sweet potato bowl or in others that I list below, because way too much of a good thing may give you diarrhea if you’re lucky and death if you’re not:

1. Rosemary – My favorite spice of them all, it’s no wonder there are women named after this. In Italy, there is a village whose inhabitants have very low incidence of Alzheimer’s disease and use rosemary frequently. Perhaps this and a slew of environmental and lifestyle factors contribute to their longevity and mental acuity. The leaves are long and it adds a nice texture, and it smells like how a grandmother’s kitchen should.

2. Turmeric – Turmeric is great to combat inflammation. “Golden Milk” is all the rage in many a wellness site, but I add a teaspoon to my banana-peanut butter smoothie as well as my sweet potatoes. The orange color makes me happy and makes the smoothie taste a bit more exciting. I can’t say “moderation” and “sense” enough especially after reading about this poor woman who died after getting an IV turmeric infusion.

3. Thyme – It has been used to treat many respiratory and gastrointestinal problems, which is cool, but I use it because it smells great! The scent of a teaspoon’s worth can transport you to a meadow filled with wildflowers where unicorns frolic and make babies. Just kidding.

4. Basil – I try to get at least two tomatoes in my daily diet because it’s a good source of Vitamin C, which I would rather take in food rather than a supplement. Basil is a great spice to pair it with. It reminds me of pizza, which I used to consume in large amounts, then I realized what I really enjoyed was the sauce.

5. Oregano – Oregano has a lively, almost citrus, taste. It’s a party of vitamins and minerals in your mouth. I sometimes have it in tea, which people say is good for menstrual cramps.

6. Garlic – My Philippine side is likely the part of me that calls for garlic, which is present in many a local dish, from adobo to fried rice. I find dinner to be incomplete without it. It helps my nose feel less stuffy when the weather gets too variable.

In taekwondo, we’re taught a lot of moves such as kicks and blocks, and we learn that each component has a purpose by itself and a connection to a larger whole. I think we need to rethink recipes so that each ingredient adds to the benefits of the dish. Everything is important, and nothing is in excess.

What spices do you use at home?




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